A More Universal Public: The Current Refugee Crisis and Christian Love

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One of today’s greatest challenges, and one which must be addressed, is that of the refugee crisis. Whether due to conflict, environmental disasters or economic issues, those affected must flee their homes, undergoing a forced migration, and often travel towards ‘the West’, bringing us, citizens of European nations, into close contact with the crisis. Further, this reality of relocation adds a new dimension of responsibility, bringing the crisis from the newspapers to our doorsteps.  According to Jeremy Adelman, “There are 60 million refugees in the world, the highest sum of pariahs since 1945, and the figure has tripled in the past year alone.” The exiled are seeking refuge and sanctuary but also must deal with the reality of becoming stateless. Therefore, although the crisis is primarily a humanitarian one; it is also political.

We are firstly faced with someone who needs our support; as a Christian one hopes to react in a loving way which reflects Jesus' simple message of loving our neighbour, but as a citizen of a Western nation, one is also faced with economic and sociological concerns, often framed by the rhetoric of nativists. Do we allow this person not only into our hearts and prayers, but over our borders and into our communities?

This essay will address two issues that can no longer be ignored due to the urgency of this crisis. Firstly, how does one navigate through an Augustinian understanding of the two Cities? Is, as William T. Cavanaugh argues, “The task of the church to interrupt the violent tragedy of the earthly city, with the comedy of redemption” (Cavanaugh, From One City to Two, p. 300); or can one separate their participation in the Kingdom of God from secular actions and concerns? I ask how this is possible when a political response to the refugee crisis goes so violently against any concept of Christian Love. As seen in the British press, this response is framed by drawing a line between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’; it questions the refugee’s right to be permitted into our country without sufficient stories of suffering and even supports campaigns for dental age checks on refugee children.

This uncomfortable paradox is expressed  by Pope Francis who argues that “the time has come to work together in building a Europe which revolves not around the economy, but around the sacredness of the human person” – a sacredness to be acknowledged in every person who knocks at the EU’s door. The second, therefore related, consideration is whether the Church should be an instrument that breaks down the narrative of nationalism, thus no longer being a silent, hidden participant of society but a vocal critic; rejecting notions of a separate church and state and removing the possibility of Christian complicity.

Hannah Arendt is an unsurprising and enlightening figure in such discussion. Herself a refugee, she shares -through her philosophical work- her experiences as a pariah; the sense of hopelessness, yet strange optimism, and the complex struggle with identity and belonging. In addition, Arendt introduces the concept of statelessness, now a global phenomenon, and a theme which frames the work of contemporary thinkers, such as Giorgio Agamben. The inherent problem with the nation-state’s response to the refugee is that the person on our door step is viewed firstly as a citizen and secondly as a human being, hence the refugee represents “the violence, fragility, and historical obsolescence of a territorial understanding of citizenship” (Loick). Agamben and Arendt both argue, “The paradox is that precisely the figure that should have embodied human rights more than any other –namely, the refugee– marked instead the radical crisis of the concept” (Agamben, Beyond Human Rights, p. 92). The conception of human rights, Arendt tells us, broke down when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all qualities and specific relationships -except that they were still human. Therefore, in the system of the nation-state, so called sacred and inalienable human rights are revealed to be without any protection precisely when it is no longer possible to conceive of them as rights of the citizens of a state (Arendt, Imperialism, pp. 290-295).

Arendt observes that what we are faced with today is the paradox of a world that humans have “constituted” but that destroys their capacity for authentic community and individual moral judgment (Arendt, Love and Saint Augustine, p. 108).

She explored this tension in her dissertation St Augustine and Love but could not find a consistent answer in Augustine’s theological response and concluded, “we must let the contractions stand as what they are” (Arendt, Love and Saint Augustine, p. 7). However, I find this paradox explicitly present in non-religious responses to the refugee crisis and think a revision to her reading of Augustine and Christian love is required.

Arendt is uncomfortable with the framework provided by Augustine as she believes his focus on love as Caritas, craving for God, forces neighbourly love to become detached, abstract and conditional. On her reading, it does not acknowledge earthly existence and rather removes the Christian from engaging with worldly concerns, reorienting their concern in an otherworldly direction, towards salvation.  Arendt wrote that, “in politics, love is a stranger,” arguing that instead we should recognise the rights and needs of fellow citizens, and act justly towards them, regardless of whether we love them or not. In opposition to this she considers Christianity to impose an unnecessary condition on interpersonal relationships. According to Arendt, Christianity promotes an instrumental outlook on the material world and through an overriding commitment to the eternal, makes it difficult for her to see the genuine relevance of the neighbour (Kiess, Hannah Arendt and Theology, p. 109).

However, Arendt’s reading neither embodies Christian Love -as I see it- nor fully understands Augustine. I consider the binding commandment to love ‘the other’ to be a unique and laudable concept in our society. It is through Christianity that the paradox of human rights is solved and Arendt’s task of understanding the human condition through the experience of the refugee can be actualised through Christian love.

The Christian relates to the other not on the basis of national identity but in an awareness of the fact that all are created and exist in a reality that is marked by the graced presence of God. All of humanity shares a common history as descendants of Adam and the eschatological promise of redemption, revealed in Christ. The uniqueness of Christian Love ensures that the neighbour is a morally necessary concept, placing a precept to welcome on the Christian, entailing that they must accept the refugee into their society and offer unrestricted support.

Furthermore, the barriers of individualism are broken by Christianity. By fulfilling the commandment to love thy neighbour as thyself, Arendt argues, the individual becomes detached from the world and enters the community of Christ, one which is against worldly community, where all become one. For Arendt such rejection of amor mundi is dangerous; however, I think such transformation should be celebrated as it rejects forms of exclusive society and the human tendency towards othering. Ideas of individualism and identity based on nationalism do need to be broken and towards such an end, Christian values can collaborate with contemporary humanist solutions. For example, Christians can support the view of Giorgio Agamben, who argues in line with Arendt, that central political categories should be completely rethought based on the experience of refugees and statelessness, shown in his concept of Refugium.

Recently, there has been great theological debates surrounding the accuracy of Arendt’s reading of Augustine. One thinker George McKenna argues that the Augustine of Arendt’s dissertation, “did not think that way at all”, namely within the framework of her world-renewing “natality”. Such discussion allows us to explore a corrective reading of Arendt, taking into account her political work and life, while presenting her views in a way that is genuinely compatible with Augustine. I wonder if Arendt would still view Christian Love as futile if she heard the appeals of Giles Fraser for active political participation. Giles Fraser has been a vocal critic of national response to the refugee crisis arguing,

The Passover, first celebrated as a last-minute preparation before leaving Egypt (unleavened bread as there wasn’t time for it to rise) – and the Christian Eucharist that was built on top of it – is nothing less than a call to re-live this basic human solidarity in the face of existential fear and uncertainty.

Further, Pope Francis' vision for Europe seems to fit comfortably with Agamben’s concept of Refugium. Pope Francis too believes that the refugee will give Europe back its soul; reminding us of Europe’s capacity to integrate, existing not as a smooth, uniform model but one that artfully incorporates diversity, like a polyhedron. He envisions,

The breadth of the European soul, born of the encounter of civilizations and peoples, extending beyond the present borders of the EU, and called to be a model of new syntheses and of dialogue.

Arendt's voice is one we can turn to as we grapple with the spread of statelessness in our globalized world. This is a historical moment in which religion may no longer be a silent member in society, one which demands that the sanctity of the human person be acknowledged and that ideals -central to Christianity, but are in fact universal- should be the central focus of Europe's response to the refugee crisis. By taking seriously Arendt’s reservations about Augustine’s otherworldliness and adopting political frameworks that include the experience of the refugee, theologians can share the true vision of Christian Love, one that is free of exclusively spiritual concerns, and that calls for unity and inclusion, resisting the nativist temptation. The Christian response to the refugee crisis should be one that promotes Cavanaugh's vision of two cities not one, “with the church striving to create another public performance, a more universal public than [Europe]” (Cavanaugh, From One City to Two, p. 302).


Jessica Hazrati holds a BA in Philosophy, Religion, and Ethics from Heythrop College where she is now pursuing a Mth, with a principal academic interest in Political Theology. In her studies she hopes to continue to explore the relationship between faith and society, advocating the value of Theology in the political sphere.